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FirstGroup pledges rail improvement
The announcement about the West Coast Main Line franchise has left rail passengers asking one question: What does this mean for me?
FirstGroup said people can expect a raft of improvements such as reduced journey times, new direct services, station upgrades, refurbished train interiors, better catering on board and a revamped ticketing system when it takes over the line on December 9.
But perhaps of most importance to passengers, especially in light of rising rail fares, is cost. FirstGroup chief executive Tim O'Toole said there would be an average 15% reduction on standard anytime tickets.
The Department for Transport expanded on the planned improvements, saying that 12,000 extra seats would be available each day when 11 six-car electric trains come into service; in addition to 106 extra Pendolino carriages being introduced at the moment, which will provide 28,000 extra seats daily.
A number of new services are proposed, including London Euston to Blackpool from next year and direct trains from London to Telford Central, Shrewsbury and Bolton from 2016. Additional services would be provided between London and Preston and the journey time between London and Glasgow would be reduced.
First West Coast also said it will spend at least £22 million on stations and will take over maintenance at 17 stations. Its franchise will run for 13 years and four months.
Sir Richard Branson said that on the previous three occasions when Virgin was outbid on a franchise tender, the winning operator was "nowhere close" to implementing the plans initially promised.
The RMT transport union warned of cuts to passenger services and increases in fares and the Transport Salaried Staffs Association said fare rises on the line will be "inflation-busting".
According to David Sidebottom, passenger director at Passenger Focus, it is too early to say what the likely impact will be but said that value for money should remain a priority.
"For the passengers making their way from London to Manchester or Glasgow, the important thing is not the name on the side of the train but the experience of the journey, the availability of staff when you need them and of course the value for money," he said.
"We welcomed the suggestion that passenger satisfaction targets could be included in the franchise, which would help us and passengers to hold the franchisee to account. We will now be reviewing the details to see exactly what passengers on this line can expect.
"With another above-inflation fare rise on the horizon, now, more than ever, passengers will be looking for value especially in terms of getting a seat and being on time."
Mike Hewitson, head of passenger issues at Passenger Focus, said FirstGroup would have "lots to live up to" as Virgin Rail had previously achieved 90% passenger satisfaction.
He said it was important for passengers to have their say, which is included as part of the franchise, and added: "Passenger satisfaction targets will be written into it so the passengers, who are the best judge of the train company, will vote.
"They say how happy they are. If they're not meeting certain targets then action will be taken."